Deadheads With Ties Face Discrimination

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Robert Mihm drives to work with a Jerry Garcia bumper sticker on his Honda Pilot. He's got Grateful Dead music playing in his office.

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A managing partner tells him straight: Hey, you can't keep advertising to clients that you're a Deadhead.

Mihm, 57 years old, is a commercial agent in Miami at Insurance Office of America, one of the nation's largest privately held insurance agencies. He helps companies manage risks.

He is also a member of "Deadheads with Ties," a group of businesses folks who've gathered on social networking site, LinkedIn. There, he started a discussion titled "Do you feel that being a Deadhead is a problem in the corporate world?"

How could music be a problem for anyone in 2011? In the 1960s and 1970s, rock was the music of rebellion -- even against corporations and consumerism. But today it sells products and remains one of America's greatest exports.

As for the Grateful Dead, they were pioneering businessmen. They shunned traditional routes in the music business and developed crowd sourcing and social networking long before the Internet. Frontman Garcia even designed a line of neckties.

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"The Grateful Dead never started a war," said Mihm. "They didn't go and bankrupt the country and cause a financial meltdown. They haven't been responsible for the last 100 years of government."

But tell people you're a Deadhead, and they may immediately associate you with dropping acid, doing "shrooms," smoking weed, burning incense, stinking of patchouli oil, and basically just being a hippie throwback to 1965, San Francisco, when the band formed.

Such associations don't occur when you say you are into Bob Dylan, the Doors, or the Beatles, who pioneered the field of psychedelic music. If you've got Michael Jackson playing in your office, co-workers don't immediately jump to the conclusion that you may be abusing propofol.
Deadheads are everywhere in the corporate world. And they're finding their place in history. The New York Historical Society ran a Grateful Dead exhibit from March to September of last year. And the University of California, Santa Cruz is permanently maintaining and displaying the band's memorabilia archive.

"Being comfortable with chaos is one reason why I'm a fan of jamming bands -- mostly the Grateful Dead," said Mihm. "Understanding how chaos can be kind of controlled does lend itself well to managing somebody's risk."

The Grateful Dead may have never played the same song the same way twice. With two drummers, and musical styles ranging from blue-grass to improvisational jazz, their audiences never knew what to expect -- and neither, really, did they.

A common discussion among Deadheads is when the band was perfectly aligned with the cosmic hum of the universe versus others when they were clearly not. This uncertainty of outcomes, says Mihm, is what forged the Deadhead culture that thrives long after Garcia's death in 1995, carried forward by a slew of Dead tribute bands and a band called Further, formed by former Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh in 2009.

"There are personality types that are comfortable with Ying and Yang and the unknown," says Mihm. "And there are other personality types that are afraid of Ying and Yang and the unknown.
They're going to try to control it through really restrictive spiritual beliefs …. Or they try to set up structures in the government where they want to keep people in control."

And they are free to discriminate against Deadheads in the workplace.

"I'm sure being a Deadhead held me back at various times," Leonard Phillips, owner of calendar publisher Gladstone Media in Charlottesville, Va., wrote on the discussion board. "Who could take a Deadhead seriously in business? Probably contributed to starting my own company and the success that followed. Now the Boss listens to the Dead (and associated vibrations) in his office whenever he wants!"

Here are a few other posts:

* "I have GD on my Facebook (I know!) and WAS displaying my GD group memberships here....until weirdness about a job opportunity surfaced."

* "My fiancée thinks this is a pretty good description of me: "Please, for the love of God stop playing this music for the entire office. No one else likes it. No one else cares about your flashback stories to the months you spent following rock bands. It's super annoying and the year is 2011; your hippie days are long gone.'"

* "The larger question is, if you are a true Grateful Dead fan and this reflects your values, how much are you willing to compromise your beliefs to work for a corporation that doesn't reflect them?"

Mihm said he thrives on the band's creativity and willingness to express ideas as fast as they come, from wherever they come, at the risk of failure.

"Like it or not, the freedom to be yourself, to express yourself, whether it's in music or business, a lot of that comes from that mid-1960s period," he said. "I wouldn't want to be living in the same corporate culture we had before when blacks couldn't get hired and women were nothing but secretaries."

At times, he's at least tried to keep his Deadhead under his hat. "I took my Facebook private," he said. "I didn't want people who didn't know me to read my posts."

But the music never stops. "If somebody is going to be that uptight about me liking a band, well, it's like Jerry said, "[bleep] 'em if they can't take a joke'."

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at al.lewis@dowjones.com or tellittoal.com)